Cold and flu season is here and keeping your immune system functioning at its best should be a top priority. Your immune system functions like your own personal army, guarding your body against attacks from invaders, defending against possible infections. It also has a great memory, often “remembering” certain infections so it’s ready for them the next time they try to attack. But just like any other body system, your immune system can deteriorate if you don’t treat it well. This cold and flu season, try these five ways to naturally strengthen your immune system and keep it functioning at its best.
- Soak Up Some Sunshine – Sunlight triggers the skin’s production of vitamin D. In the summer, 10-15 minutes of exposure is enough. However, in the winter months, sunlight is often limited due to shortened days and bundling up. Few foods contain this vitamin. Low vitamin D levels correlate with a greater risk of respiratory infection. A study in kids showed that 1200 IU a day of supplemental vitamin D helped boost the immune system.
- Sleep– lack of sleep can affect your immune system. Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines.
- Meditation – Your immune system is actually quite intelligent. This means that your thoughts, moods, sensations, and expectations are transmitted to your immune cells. When you meditate, these messages change in important ways. Meditation stimulates immune system brain-function regions. Mindfulness meditation has shown increases in electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, and right hippocampus, all parts that control positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety. These are also the areas of the brain that act as a command center for your immune system. When stimulated, they make the immune system function more effectively.
- Exercise – Getting in a good workout isn’t going to cure your illness but maintaining a healthy lifestyle may help minimize the effects of symptoms. Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. It may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job more efficiently.
- Healthy Gut – The microbes that live in your gut not only help your body digest food — they also help regulate your metabolism, hunger, weight, and immune system. A strong immune system relies heavily on having a healthy, well-functioning gut. A whopping 70 percent of your immune system is in the gut and probiotics help keep your gut engine running properly. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help reduce inflammation and prevent infection; they may also reduce the severity of allergies. Studies indicate supplements reduce the incidence of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Fermented milk products have also been shown to reduce respiratory infections in adults and kids.